After the lazy summer withered away to make way for one last school year, I found myself eager to return to Hogwarts. It would be the last season I would be playing quidditch wearing dazzling red and gold stripes, the last few cozy evening snuggled by the fire enjoying the company of those I loved most, and the last time I would get to indulge in the security and secrets of the Room of Requirement. We boarded the train quickly and nearly wordlessly, hugging the Potters goodbye before they disapparated out of the train station, not risking anything by hanging around too long.
"So how could somebody like Zephyros have come from someone as so lovely as your grandmother?" Remus said as we loaded our trunks above us in the compartment. Lux was already perched in the very middle of the seat, kneading herself a nice place to curl up and sleep until we arrived in Hogsmeade station. I shrugged.
"I suppose he gets his vileness from my grandfather. He wasn't a very nice man," I said, as I looked out the window, the train lurching forward. The three raised their eyebrows. "I never met him, and my grandmother never said much about him. I just know he wasn't a very cozy person to be around." I continued to stare out the window as the scenery flew by us, meadows and lakes, wildflowers swaying back and forth carelessly. It was true. I hadn't known much about my grandfather. Growing up, there were no portraits of him in the house, none of his belongings, no inkling of him ever having been around. I always knew, though, that my grandmother was desperate for him. I would catch her peering behind the curtain out toward the street, a distant gaze, wishing he would come home, be the man that she married so long ago, the man that she needed. Sometimes a single tear would fall down on her cheek, and I would catch it on my finger, asking her what was the matter. She would always smile and simply tell me that the sun was just very bright, and she caught herself looking at it for a little bit too long. As I got older, I grew out of believing this lie, and I stopped asking what was wrong. Instead I would hold her hand and hum my favorite lullaby. Only somebody who had ice in their veins and wickedness in their heart could do that to my grandmother, the happiest woman I ever knew, to weigh her down with such sadness. That was how I knew my grandfather was a wicked man.
As we made our way out of the train and onto the platform of Hogsmeade station, the air seemed heavier. Thorough searches were carried out on each student as soon as they stepped foot on the ground. The teachers escorting us back to the castle seemed hurried and preoccupied, talking in hushed voices to each other as they ushered us onto the carriages that took us up to the castle. Sirius's expression told me he had picked up on the same eerie feeling I had, like something was a bit off. Considering the state of things, however, how could we expect any less caution or furtiveness? Even in the Great Hall during the feast, the mood was a bit sullen. Those sitting at the staff tables had their heads down, occasionally glancing up when a particularly loud clatter of a fork or clang of a goblet echoed through the Hall. All went silent when Dumbledore stood behind his podium to address the new year.
"Very best of evenings to you all," he said with a forced smile. There were dark circles under his eyes and in just the couple of months of the holiday, he looked years older. What had been going on to make Dumbledore look so haggard and worn? "To those new students, I would like to say welcome, and to those of you who are returning, welcome back." He paused for a moment and glanced over the whole room, as if he were taking a head-tally on all of us present. "I know you are all wondering why you were searched as you disembarked the train. I assure you all that we are taking all of the necessary precautions to keep you safe here at Hogwarts. The searches were just a precaution to ensure that no foul play or dark magic were to enter this castle." He paused again, and swept the room with his eyes, making sure nobody disappeared in the last few seconds of his speech. "I will also make you aware of a new change in rules that have been made." Whispers erupted around the Great Hall. "There will be no loitering in the corridors in between classes. No exceptions. You must always walk with at least one other person while you are about the castle or the grounds. No exceptions. Also, starting tonight, there will be a strict curfew of seven o'clock. No exceptions." Dumbledore's eyes traveled toward me as the Great Hall burst into an uproar of disagreement. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed us.
"It's got to be getting pretty serious out there," Sirius said with a sigh.
"Those rule changes are pretty harsh. Do you think they'll enforce them?" James asked as we made our way up to Gryffindor. I shrugged as Sirius draped his arm around me.
"I think they will. Dumbledore is worried. What's the password again?" I remembered that I hadn't been told the new password to get past the portrait, or if I had, I didn't recall it.
"Cavere malum," Remus said to the fat lady, and she swung open, allowing us passage into the common room. Regardless of all of the cautiousness and heaviness that weighed down on the castle, the Gryffindor common room remained untouched. The cozy, warm couches and arm chairs still snugly circled the flames from the fire; the torches along the wall bathed the room in a dim light; the stars and quarter moon shone in through the window above the staircase as a warm breeze wafted through it, replacing the stuffiness of the castle with fresh, evening air.
"You know," Sirius began as he plopped down in the middle of one of the couches. "Just because there's a curfew doesn't mean we still can't have fun." He dipped his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. I rolled my eyes, having played exploding snap nearly every night of the summer holiday, but something about playing it back in the Gryffindor tower made it sound refreshing. The boys seemed enthusiastic as they sat around him. I followed as well, offering to be the dealer of the cards.
We received our schedules the next morning. They were nearly exactly the same as the previous term, but in between the scheduled class periods were schedules travel times. In between Transfiguration and Potions I had three minutes and twelve seconds. Between Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts I had five minutes and thirty-eight seconds. It seemed that they were trying to eliminate any possible sort of down-time. Each student must be accounted for every second of every day. I dug my finger into Sirius's side as I pointed to the new addition to the schedules.
"I know, mine has that too! It seems they give me a little bit more time in between. Probably because I drag my feet all the time," he said with a chuckle. It wasn't like Sirius to be so nonchalant about such strict rules. He was a free-spirit, and nobody could dictate how he would spend his seconds. I pulled him aside, away from anyone who might want to eavesdrop.
"What about our lessons?" I said in a nearly inaudible whisper. Sirius looked to the sides of him quickly. "Dumbledore looked right at me when he mentioned the curfew."
"We will figure it out, I promise. But with all the progress you've been making, I doubt we will even need many more lessons," he said with a wink. "Come on, we've got about two minutes and twenty-five seconds to get to Transfiguration." We headed down the corridor of the ground floor when James caught up to us, breathless and beaming.
"What are you so excited about?" I asked him. We had one minute and nine seconds left. James was catching his breath.
"Potions!" he said with an enormous smile on his face. Sirius and I looked at each other, amused and a bit puzzled. "I told McGonagall I wanted to be an auror and she just put me in Potions. Easy as that!" He was still breathing heavily as we entered the classroom and picked seats near the center. "I'm sure I'll need help with the homework, but I know someone who can help me." His smile lasted through the entire class, and as we traveled down to the dungeons for Potions, I knew he was not referring to me or Remus helping him with his work as I saw him take a seat beside Lily. Remus and I kept our distance as we watched them. Lily was still very standoffish toward James, but she let him get the ingredients from the cupboard, and that was a good start.
We decided to steer clear of rule breaking during the first month. We made it to curfew on time and did not stray far from our schedules which had our day planned out to the tee. Even the night of the full moon, I decided to stay behind in the common room to study some charms. I glanced out the window ten times every minute, admiring the full moon and longing to be in the Shrieking Shack, but I had a feeling I should remain in the common room, safe with my books by the fire.
It was late one night when I finally decided to break curfew. Sirius was already in bed when I threw the invisibility cloak over me and dragged him out of the portrait hole. Teachers were everywhere, patrolling the halls for any mischievous students breaking the rules. The punishment for being out of bed after curfew was a week of detention with Filch. Nobody wanted to suffer through that. We nearly got caught a few times, once by Professor Slughorn who might have seen the bottom of my shoes dart past him, but he was too sleepy to decide if he was imagining it or not, and another time by Filch's cat, who looked me straight in the face, as if our invisibility was no match for her piercing, all-seeing yellow eyes. We made it up to the Room of Requirement, luckily, without detection. The door appeared and we slipped inside before anyone could detect us.
"That was a real trip," Sirius said as he sat down in an arm chair. "I don't know if I'm very keen on doing that again. I mean, I'm an expert at sneaking, but that wasn't very effortless." I sat down on the arm of his chair and he wrapped his arm around my waist.
"I'm sorry I made you sneak extra hard," I said in a baby voice, trying to mock him. He pulled me onto his lap and tickled me. I laughed until he planted his lips against mine, quieting my giggles. "Do you want to get started?" I said, pulling my face away from his.
"Now, Marilyn, you have to at least buy me a drink first!" He said playfully, and pulled me back into him.
"You know what I mean," I said as he twisted a lock of my hair gently around his finger. He chuckled softly.
"Yes, I know what you mean. But let me enjoy this for a moment. After all, this is the most real alone time we have gotten in a while." He was right. Since the last visit we made to the Room of Requirement, we haven't been truly alone. At the Potters' there was always someone just beyond the wall, and the curfew flooded the common room with more students than usual in the evenings. It was nice to be in his arms, having no worries of interruptions or disturbances.
It was nearing midnight when I broke apart from him, startled. A loud crashing noise came from below us. I could feel the floor shake. I looked at Sirius, fear in my eyes. Something was in the castle that shouldn't have been. I had a feeling I knew exactly what it was. Another crash came, this time in another spot. I whimpered and shoved my face into Sirius's chest, trying to achieve a false security that I got as his arms enveloped me.
"It's okay. Nobody knows about this place but us. We're safe in here," he said as he cradled my head against him.
"Not if they're tearing down the walls."